US President Donald Trump came under fire from Democrats and even some members of his own Republican Party on Monday after launching an extraordinary xenophobic attack on four progressive Democratic congresswomen.
“All they do is complain,” Trump told reporters at a White House event featuring products “Made in America”.
“These are people that hate our country,” he said of the four lawmakers. “If you’re not happy here, you can leave.”
Trump also accused the four first-term congresswomen– who are of Hispanic, Arab, Somali and African American origin – of having “love” for US “enemies like Al-Qaeda”.
Asked by a reporter whether he was concerned that many people saw his comments as racist, Trump said: “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me.”
Several hours after his remarks, the four – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – hit back at a news conference and urged people not to “take the bait”..
Pressley condemned Trump’s “xenophobic and bigoted” comments and said: “We will not be silenced.”
Omar said Trump made a “blatantly racist attack” on four lawmakers “of colour”.
“This is the agenda of white nationalists,” she said.
Omar and Tlaib repeated calls for Trump to be impeached.
Democratic congressman Al Green, of Texas, separately said he would bring an impeachment vote to the House floor this month “for bigotry in policy, harmful to our society”.
Pressley also urged the American people “to not take the bait.”
“This is simply a disruption and a distraction from the callous chaotic and corrupt culture of this administration, all the way down,” Pressley said.
The four lawmakers – who have been nicknamed “The Squad” by some media – said attention should instead be focused on healthcare and immigration and, in particular, the treatment of asylum seekers on the southern border.
“Weak minds and leaders challenge loyalty to our country in order to avoid challenging and debating the policy,” said Ocasio-Cortez.
Trump “does not know how to defend his policies, so what he does is attack us personally, and that is what this is all about,” she said.
Tlaib said Trump’s tweets and remarks were “a continuation of his racist and xenophobic playbook”.
“We cannot allow these hateful actions by the president to distract us from the critical work to hold this administration accountable to the inhumane conditions at the border that is separating children from their loved ones and caging them up in illegal, horrific conditions,” she said.
The president first attacked the lawmakers – all but one of whom were born in America – with a series of tweets on Sunday, saying they should “go back” to their countries of origin.
His comments prompted critical reactions from foreign leaders, and outrage at home from Democrats – while Republicans were initially silent.
On Monday, several of his party faithful began to speak up.
Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, said: “My view is that what was said and what was tweeted was destructive, was demeaning, was disunifying, and frankly it was very wrong.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said: “There is no excuse for the president’s spiteful comments – they were absolutely unacceptable and this needs to stop. We must demand a higher standard of decorum and decency.”
Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said she disagreed with the policies espoused by the “far-left” Democratic lawmakers, but that Trump was “way over the line”.
For Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, “the citizenship of all four is as valid as mine”.
“They are entitled to their opinions, however misguided they may be.”
Texan Will Hurd, the only black Republican in the House of Representatives, told CNN that Trump’s behaviour was “unbecoming of the leader of the free world”.
And Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican from South Carolina, criticised the president for using “unacceptable personal attacks and racially offensive language”.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern became the latest international leader to condemn Trump’s tweets.
“I completely and utterly disagree with him,” she told Radio New Zealand, noting that her country welcomed diversity in the corridors of power.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Britain’s Theresa May also expressed disapproval.
‘Cold, hard strategy’
Trump’s comments appear to be aimed at galvanising his mostly white electoral base ahead of the 2020 presidential vote – while also stoking racial tensions and divisions among his political opponents.
“With his deliberate, racist outburst, @realDonaldTrump wants to raise the profile of his targets, drive Dems to defend them and make them emblematic of the entire party,” said David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for Barack Obama’s two White House campaigns.
In his initial Twitter attack on Sunday, Trump – who before becoming president pushed the racist “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama was not born on US soil – said the congresswomen came from corrupt, poorly managed countries to which they should return.
Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley were all born in the United States while Omar arrived as a refugee from war-torn Somalia, which she fled as a child.
Former vice president Joe Biden, who is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, denounced Trump as the most “openly racist and divisive” president in US history.
“Go home to your country? It’s sickening, it’s embarrassing,” Biden said.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, has had a tenuous relationship with the four left-leaning congresswomen, but she jumped to their defence.
Pelosi said she was seeking Republicans to co-sponsor a House resolution “condemning the president’s xenophobic tweets” and “characterisation of immigrants”.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said he planned to do the same in the Senate.